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Planning for Climate Change with our water infrastructure

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 prompted many municipalities, states, businesses and agencies to escalate their vulnerability analysis and preparedness for the potential effects of climate change.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority wasn’t one of them. It didn’t have to scramble like New York City, which last year launched a $19.5 billion climate resiliency plan, because the MWRA has been studying climate change and adapting its operations accordingly for more than two decades. And it integrates this approach into all planning.

“We don’t have a climate change plan,” Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, MWRA Director of Planning, explained in a January presentation at the Mystic River Watershed Association’s Joint Committee Meeting. “We have a master plan that incorporates climate change throughout.”

The MWRA takes what it describes as a pragmatic, two-pronged approach to the long-term concerns posed by climate change:

·       Adaptation:Understanding potential impacts, and mitigating and creating resiliency around them

·       Mitigation:Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the MWRA’s environmental footprint; cutting costs; and contributing to the common good/improving public perception.

As a supplier of wholesale water and wastewater services to more than 2.5 million customers in 61 communities over a 75-mile area, the MWRA has a critical need to maintain its vast infrastructure network. The potential effects of climate change, including sea level rise and severe storms, are of particular concern since 21 of the MWRA’s coastal sewer facilities are within 15 feet of mean sea level. Several coastal pump stations also are in vulnerable locations.

So, the MRWA uses benchmarks such as FEMA’s 100-year flood level (plus 2.5 feet) and hurricane flooding level estimates as it assesses what kind of infrastructure reinvestment to make to ensure safe and continuous operations.

An early example of the MWRA’s foresight is the authority’s signature facility, the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. When designing the complex in the late 1980s, the MWRA already had noted a 60-year trend in sea level rise and projections of an additional increase of 1.9 feet over the next 40 years. So, in order to ensure that the plant would perform as designed, the MWRA raised the height of the entire island by 1.9 feet, and increased the diameter of the main outfall tunnel, which operates on gravity, to maintain hydraulic capacity.

All MRWA facilities, including those used for administration and maintenance, are similarly measured for vulnerability and risk of inundation and modified accordingly. Important equipment, including main generators and backups, may be moved to higher elevations, and permanent and temporary flood barriers installed. When large storms loom, staff and equipment are redeployed to predetermined locations, including a backup operations control center.

MWRA’s drinking water sources are less vulnerable to climate change effects, as they are primarily at higher elevations 35 to 65 miles inland, and have excess capacity. But the authority continues to invest in improvements in these areas as well. The capacity of the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoir spillways have been improved, and since 2006, MWRA has spent more than $21 million on dam safety projects.

While providing water and sewer service is an essential operation, it also is an energy-intensive one. To reduce energy use and costs, the MWRA relies heavily on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro power at its facilities. And at Deer Island, 98% of the methane generated from treating sewage is used to power turbines for plant heat and hot water.

Today, about 45% of the MWRA’s total energy costs derive from renewable sources, and the authority estimates its energy savings and revenue at approximately $177 million from fiscal years 2002 through 2011.

Estes-Smargiassi summed up the MRWA’s mission with the slogan Drink With Confidence, Flush With Pride. “We strive to provide an adequate, reliable supply of high quality drinking water and environmentally responsible collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater, all accomplished affordably and under all circumstances,” he said.

The next Mystic River Watershed Association Joint Committee Meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4, in the Rabb Room of the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University.  State Representative Denise Provost of Somerville will give a presentation about the state budget process, and how MyRWA can advocate for watershed investments directly in the budget or as amendments.

The public is welcome at all Joint Committee Meetings.

For more information on the Mystic River Watershed Association, visit www.mysticriver.org.

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